Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Don't Turn Your Back

It is important while following this practice to ensure that although facing one's mortality is important, it is more important to face one's life. All the while.. whatever we happen to be engaged in... or, whether or not we are engaged at all... life is taking place... every moment of every day... and we wouldn't want to miss it!

I recently had an email conversation with a young female acquaintance who is/was/is/was a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. While I am not a practitioner of this tradition, and while I don't pretend to know very much about it at all.. other than what I have read... I made a leap of faith in my opinion that it most likely isn't all that different from my own order; The Nyorai-Nyoko (Tathagata)Sect of Rinzai Zen Buddhism; at least not at its heart. I am sure that the bells and whistles are different... but, down at the important parts, I think there is much more similarity than difference... and this probably carries over to many other (if not all) religious traditions... we are all human... and we all live in the same 'belly-button'.. so it stands to reason that share at least some commonality.. even in this. In any case, the conversation more or less centered around her feelings of guilt over not being able to find the time to follow her practice on a regular basis, and not being able to attend retreats, meditate, etc., etc.

I advised her not to beat herself up over this... everything comes... and everything goes... and then everything comes back again!! This is the way the universe works. Life sometimes throws a great deal at us, and, while it is true that if we simply threw everything to the winds and made the time to meditate, or what have you, we would be able to do it... it is, often, simply a question of priorities... however, it is equally true that in some periods of our lives, to do this would be to invite a great deal of trouble at a later date by shirking our responsibilities. So, I suggested that she use her daily activities as practice... you don't have to sit on a cushion to meditate... it is the most optimal form of practice, but when it isn't available to us, we must use what we have at hand.

One of my duties as a monk is to serve as Tenzo for my Zen Center (we are a very small center, with a very small Sangha.. so we all serve as multiple capacity monks.. HA!). The term Tenzo is made up of two Chinese ideographs, the first character 'Ten'(典)* (as pronounced by the Japanese) (Jun in Korean) means 'Law' 'Documents' or 'Control' (these are some of the meanings..) the second character 'Zo'(座) (Japanese pronunciation) (Jo-WAH in Korean) (Hangul: 전좌)** - One would think that the position involves being some sort of judge, lawyer, or magistrate... but this is not what the Tenzo does in his monastery. The Tenzo is the Kitchen, and the Monk who runs the kitchen (So: just to be clear, Tenzo is the kitchen AND the cook.. there!) (and by extension is in charge of the garden as well).

* Asian Characters will only show for those of you who have them enabled. My apologies to those of you who are forced to look at gobbledy-gook; I put the characters here for any readers who may have an interest in the etymology, and I make the assumption that the configuration of their computers will allow them to view the characters.
** The characters are Chinese. The pronunciation in Chinese will differ according to the regional dialect of the reader/speaker. The Japanese and Korean people use Chinese characters as well as their own writing systems; each have their own unique way of pronouncing the character (this will be, essentially, a corrupted pronunciation of the original Chinese pronunciation for the most part) and each country will also, I assume, utilize the characters in their own unique way (in many cases using characters that have become obsolete elsewhere, or using derived meanings that other countries who also use the characters will not recognize). While the meanings of the Characters remain essentially the same, they are very likely used somewhat differently by each country as I have said, but for the most part they are intelligible by all.. at least to some extent. Confused? Good! It doesn't pay to understand everything! HA! Usual disclaimer applies here: Individual mileage may vary.

By now you will be starting to recover from your shock, dismay and confusion at the sudden conversational leap... but have no fear!! I will explain... its relevant (sort of).. I promise!

In each office that we hold, we are trained in our duties. This isn't like the training that one receives at a job with an hourly wage where someone dismissively points you in the general direction of your work area and gives you vague to incomprehensible instructions and then beats feet... leaving you to sink or swim.

In the Zen Monastic Community (Sangha) as an Un-Sui or; Monk in training (Un-Sui - It means Clouds & Rain.. I will touch on this another time..) you are taken under the tutelage of a Monk who has already served in the office that you are being assigned to, and taught everything that you must know. Then, every single senior Monk who has ever served in that office has free reign to make corrections on what you do.. and how you do it. In Zen, every action, every movement, every single thing you do is deliberate.. and significant. How you stand, how you sit, how you speak, how you move... and how you think. Everything. Little by little, each task, each office, each assignment eventually teaches you a great deal about the history, tradition, discipline, and all of the whys and wherefores of what we do and why we do it that way. We all eventually serve in every capacity... more than once... and we all learn more and more and more each time we do it. Traditionally, you serve in a particular office for a period of three months... but it generally holds true that you serve in the same office for many subsequent 'terms' resulting in years of experience in each office.

The Tenzo is normally the oldest and most respected monk in the monastery. In my case this is very, very far from the truth. I happen to be a fairly skillful cook however, and people like to eat tasty and nutritious food! So... I am Tenzo.

When the Tenzo begins his (or her - I happen to be a male, so I will use 'him' 'he' and 'his' for simplicity's sake) work in the kitchen, the very first thing that he does is to clean the entire kitchen. By doing this, we ensure that the workspace is clean, we show respect to our work space and to all of our tools and implements; without which we could not effectively do our work... and most of which are the product of the work of many, many individuals -- so we give our tools respect and we express our gratitude for having them and to those individuals who had a part in producing them by way of their work, by treating them properly, maintaining them, and keeping them clean and serviceable. Another reason for starting out by cleaning is that it allows us to settle our mind, find our center, and cultivate a proper mental state; tranquil, calm, serene, focused, and mindful. Lastly, as we clean, we are forced to touch and inspect everything within the purview of our kitchen. By doing this, we silently and efficiently inventory all of our supplies, taking note of what must be used before it spoils, what we have too much of (not much of this!) and what we are almost out of... also, we inspect all of the tools and surfaces for proper order and condition... mentally creating a 'repair list' if we find things needing attention.

Once this is done, we are prepared to start the preparation of our meal. In a Zen kitchen, (the Tenzo), much of the food that we use is donated, and is sometimes not the most fresh produce around... but this is the duty of the Tenzo.. to use what he has and create a meal that is tasty and nutritious. The Tenzo is charged with keeping the Monks in his charge, as well as any lay practitioners and guests, healthy and energetic so that they may practice and progress!! Ah-HA! Now we come to understand the meaning of Tenzo - the seat of the law (In Buddhist terminology, 'Dharma' is often translated as 'Law' (or sometimes 'Way'..but usually 'Law') -- If the Monks are not healthy in their body, their mind also loses its health and vitality... this is simple cause and effect... And this is where it begins in may respects. Healthy food, Healthy Monks.. very simple!

This nurturing by way of feeding others and oneself (that's me.. the Tenzo.. feeding myself...) healthy food is a physical manifestation of being kind and compassionate to all beings ... oneself included! (Here you are expected to make the leap from my implication that beating oneself up for not being able to find the time for formal practice would be unkind to oneself... and that being kind is somehow better... well, it just is! I will continue..)

Tenzo takes whatever he has, mostly because that is all that he has (and therefore hasn't much choice in the matter...) and uses his skill and knowledge to prepare a meal that is delicious and that will keep everyone healthy... in life, we often wait before we do things for the conditions to become perfect.. but, conditions are never perfect.. so, many of us spend a great deal of time waiting... and not so much time doing!! So... not much gets done... and we have no time... and then we bludgeon ourselves for not getting things done! Its a vicious circle.

Often, we think about what we have to do, and we realize that it mostly sucks.. that its a big pain in the neck, and that we would prefer to be doing something else.. or nothing in particular.. but not this!! -- aaannnnd; it doesn't get done. Vicious circle.. out comes the mental bludgeon.

Not only do we bludgeon ourselves... but, since everything is connected on some level.. particularly those of us that are self-aware and living... we tend to start taking whacks at others, too.

Here's a secret: NOBODY can live up to our expectations. Not us. Not you. Not them. NOBODY. It's an impossible task. It causes great suffering.. and everybody gets a headache. The aspirin companies make money.. and then the executives go home and get bawled out by their spouses for not getting stuff done.. go figure.

As Tenzo, we are expected to face facts and realize that we will never have the perfect ingredients. We will never have the perfect tools and implements. And.. we will never have all the time that we would like to get everything done that must be done. So, what does one do when one is Tenzo and must get the meal prepared??

You know, as Monks, when we walk; we just walk. When we sit; we just sit. And when we work; we just work. (Now what the hell does that mean?)

In a nutshell, it means simply this; "Thinking about doing something is very often much more difficult than actually just DOING it." - so, we take the most important, or the most time-appropriate task, and we begin. That's all. We take what we have, we figure out the best way that we can get started under the circumstances... and we give it all we've got. If you have to cut one thousand onions, cut onions like Mozart composed music! If you have to peel a million potatoes, peel potatoes like Shakespeare wrote poetry.

Most of the time, we end up with food that is tasty and nutritious.

Sometimes, we end up with a big bowl of slop. But, as Monks, everyone still has to eat it. They can't all be winners.

Good comes. Bad comes. Good comes again. Bad comes again. Then good comes. This is life. It is of value to develop a degree of equanimity. We sometimes can control how things turn out.. and we often cannot. So, in many cases, what we have is simply one more damned thing to get used to... so we get used to it. If we can change it or improve it, we do. If we can't, we try to go around it. If we can't go around it, we try to go over it, under it, through it, or away from it... and if we cannot do any of those, ...well, we try to accept it. It is only with an open heart that we can eventually find release.. and peace.

In the case of the Tenzo, when you make some sort of nasty beet/pineapple/asparagus porridge that looks, smells, and tastes pretty awful.. the Monks of your Sangha will still eat it.. though they may not accept seconds.. (in which case, guess what is served again at the next meal! HA!) - but, you won't get dirty looks, nobody will hate you, and you won't get fired as Tenzo. It is just accepted as the meal that helps us to appreciate every single other meal we have ever been lucky to eat other than this one.

After the food is served, the Tenzo continues his work by cleaning the kitchen once more. During this time, we learn from any mistakes or miscalculations that we have made... and then we simply let it go. We retain the knowledge.. but we don't allow the mistake to stick. Mistakes happen. You learn from mistakes. You learn nothing from doing everything right every time... you learn from doing it wrong, and from figuring out how that happened. This is a microcosm of life. This is why pencils come with erasers on the other end at no extra charge. So, we end our work the very same way that we started... by cleaning the kitchen, taking stock of our supplies and tools, and settling our mind.

When we start the next meal, we will start by cleaning the kitchen..

If we approach each day like a meal prepared by the Tenzo, we would probably avoid a great deal of pain, and suffering over the gap between "How we wish it would be" and "How it actually is" - this gap may be very small... or very large, but either way, as humans, we tend to hate it - and it causes us to forego entirely, or to at least curtail enjoying what life is unfolding for us. Whatever happens, that is our story... regardless of how we think it should be. We are here. Not there. We can only ever get there by starting out where we are. We will only be able to improve what will be by doing it in the present moment - because that is the only moment in time that we have access to.

So, I suggested to this young lady that she practice while doing the dishes, or while cleaning, dressing, during personal hygiene, or what have you (but probably not while driving!). This is bringing one's practice into daily life...

Daily life is what you are doing... even now.

It may be easier, or preferable to be able to have time put aside for our practice. It will most likely be 'better', if 'better' is a word that one would use for describing our practice... but, if life is expanding and giving us all sorts of things that we must do... then, we must contract and get those things done... you cannot take the next breath without exhaling this one.. plain and simple.

So.. don't turn your back on life, in order to practice.

After all.. we are practicing for 'life' - even though we call it dying practice.

Also, try to remember; Being kind and compassionate to all beings means being kind to yourself! You must learn to love and be kind to yourself, to accept yourself, just as you are, flaws and strengths, perfections and weaknesses...

You need an inbreath and an outbreath. Night and Day. Good and Bad. Contraction and expansion. Positive AND negative; if you are to achieve any sort of balance in your life. You can't force it... you have to simply let it happen... remember; "Soft Belly".

With Palms Joined... I hope this helps your practice in some small way...


John said...

Your beautiful writing has put tears in my eyes.

Thank you so very much.



SuvvyGirl said...

I came here Via Mr. Guinness. I will have to read more later at home. so far this post was very relaxing to read and peaked my interest immensely. The world would be a much better place if more people practiced like this.

Bunan Unsui said...


My thanks to you, my friend, for taking the time to read my writing, and for your kind words..

In Peace & Brotherhood,

Bunan Unsui

Bunan Unsui said...


I am so pleased that you find my writing enjoyable.. I hope that it will be a help to your own practice in some way, or that it may spark an interest for you to begin your own practice, if you do not yet have one...

I agree with you; I think that the world would, at the very least, be filled with happier, calmer, and more tranquil people if more people practiced. I don't think that it would be such a bad thing... but, I am biased!

I hope you will continue to visit!

With palms humbly joined...

Bunan Unsui